Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood; drawing by David Levine

In 1954 I had lunch with Christopher Isherwood at MGM. He told me that he had just written a film for Lana Turner. The subject? Diane de Poitiers. When I laughed, he shook his head. “Lana can do it,” he said grimly. Later, as we walked about the lot and I told him that I hoped to get a job as a writer at the studio since I could no longer live on my royalties as a novelist (and would not teach), Christopher gave me as melancholy a look as those bright—even harsh—blue eyes can affect. “Don’t,” he said with great intensity, posing against the train beneath whose wheels Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina made her last dive, “become a hack like me.” But we both knew that this was play-acting. Like his friend Aldous Huxley (like William Faulkner and many others), he has been able to write to order for movies while never ceasing to do his own work in his own way. Those whom Hollywood destroyed were never worth saving. Not only has Isherwood written successfully for the camera, he has been, notoriously, in his true art, the camera.

“I am a camera.” With those four words at the beginning of the novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Christopher Isherwood became famous. Because of those four words he has been written of (and sometimes written off) as a naturalistic writer, a recorder of surfaces, a film director manqué. Although it is true that, up to a point, Isherwood often appears to be recording perhaps too impartially the lights, the shadows, the lions that come within the area of his vision, he is never without surprises; in the course of what looks to be an undemanding narrative, the author will suddenly produce a Polaroid shot of the reader reading, an alarming effect achieved by the sly use of the second person pronoun. You never know quite where you stand in relation to an Isherwood work.

During the half century that Christopher Isherwood has been more or less at the center of Anglo-American literature, he has been much scrutinized by friends, acquaintances, purveyors of book-chat. As memoirs of the Twenties, Thirties, Forties now accumulate, Isherwood keeps cropping up as a principal figure, and if he does not always seem in character, it is because he is not an easy character to fix upon the page. Also, he has so beautifully invented himself in the Berlin stories, Lions and Shadows, Down There on a Visit, and now Christopher and His Kind, that anyone who wants to snap yet again this lion’s shadow has his work cut out for him. After all, nothing is harder to reflect than a mirror.

To date the best developed portrait of Isherwood occurs in Stephen Spender’s autobiography World Within World (1951). Like Isherwood, Spender was a part of that upper-middle-class generation which came of age just after the First World War. For the lucky few able to go to the right schools and universities, postwar England was still a small and self-contained society where everyone knew everyone else. In fact, English society was simply an extension of school. But something disagreeable had happened at school just before the Isherwoods and Spenders came on stage. The First World War had killed off the better part of a generation of graduates, and among the graduated dead was Isherwood’s father. There was a long shadow over the young…of dead fathers, brothers; also of dead or dying attitudes. Rebellion was in the air. New things were promised.

In every generation there are certain figures who are who they are at an early age: stars in ovo. People want to know them; imitate them; destroy them. Isherwood was such a creature and Stephen Spender fell under his spell even before they met.

At nineteen Spender was an under-graduate at Oxford; another undergraduate was the twenty-one-year-old W.H. Auden. Isherwood himself (three years Auden’s senior) was already out in the world; he had got himself sent down from Cambridge by sending up a written examination. He had deliberately broken out of the safe cozy university world, and the brilliant but cautious Auden revered him. Spender writes how, “according to Auden, [Isherwood] held no opinions whatever about anything. He was wholly and simply interested in people. He did not like or dislike them, judge them favorably or unfavorably. He simply regarded them as material for his Work. At the same time, he was the Critic in whom Auden had absolute trust. If Isherwood disliked a poem, Auden destroyed it without demur.”

Auden was not above torturing the young Spender: “Auden withheld the privilege of meeting Isherwood from me.” Writing twenty years later, Spender cannot resist adding, “Isherwood was not famous at this time. He had published one novel, All the Conspirators, for which he had received an advance of £30 from his publishers, and which had been not very favorably reviewed.” But Isherwood was already a legend, as Spender concedes, and worldly success has nothing to do with legends. Eventually Auden brought them together. Spender was not disappointed:


He simplified all the problems which entangled me, merely by describing his own life and his own attitudes towards these things…. Isherwood had a peculiarity of being attractively disgusted and amiably bitter…. But there was a positive as well as negative side to his beliefs. He spoke of being Cured and Saved with as much intensity as any Salvationist.

In Isherwood’s earliest memoir Lions and Shadows (1938) we are given Isherwood’s first view of Spender, a sort of reverse-angle shot (and known to Spender when he wrote World Within World): “[Spender] burst in upon us, blushing, sniggering loudly, contriving to trip over the edge of the carpet—an immensely tall, shambling boy of nineteen, with a great scarlet poppy-face, wild frizzy hair, and eyes the violent color of bluebells.” The camera turns, catching it all. “In an instant, without introductions, we were all laughing and talking at the top of our voices…. He inhabited a world of self-created and absorbing drama, into which each new acquaintance was immediately conscripted to play a part. [Spender] illuminated you” (the second person now starts to take hold: the film’s voice-over has begun its aural seduction) “like an expressionist producer, with the crudest and most eccentric of spot-lights: you were transfigured, became grandiose, sinister, brilliantly ridiculous or impossibly beautiful, in accordance with his arbitary, prearranged conception of your role.” You, spot-light, producer….

In The Whispering Gallery, the publisher and critic John Lehmann describes his first meeting with Spender in 1930 and how he “talked a great deal about Auden, who shared (and indeed had inspired) so many of his views, and also about a certain young novelist Christopher Isherwood, who, he told me, had settled in Berlin in stark poverty and was an even greater rebel against the England we lived in than he was….” When Lehmann went to work for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, he got them to publish Isherwood’s second novel The Memorial.

Lehmann noted the generation’s Novelist:

Much shorter than myself, he nevertheless had a power of dominating which small people of outstanding intellectual or imaginative equipment often possess. One of my favorite private fancies has always been that the most ruthless war that underlies our civilized existence…is the war between the tall and the short.

Even so, “It was impossible not to be drawn to him…. And yet for some months after our first meeting…our relations remained rather formal: perhaps it was the sense of alarm that seemed to hang in the air when his smile was switched off, a suspicion he seemed to radiate that one might after all be in league with the ‘enemy,’ a phrase which covered everything he had, with a pure hatred, cut himself off from in English life….”

In 1931 a cold transatlantic eye was turned upon both Isherwood and Spender. The twenty-year-old Paul Bowles presented himself to Isherwood in Berlin. “When I came to Isherwood,” Bowles records in Without Stopping, “he said he would take me himself to Spender.” Bowles did not approve of Spender’s looking and acting the part of a poet: “Whether Spender wrote poetry or not seemed relatively unimportant; that at all costs the fact should not be evident was what should have mattered to him.” Bowles acknowledges that this primness reflected the attitudes of his Puritan family and background. “I soon found that Isherwood with Spender was a very different person from Isherwood by himself.” But then the camera and its director are bound to alter according to light, weather, cast. “Together they were overwhelmingly British, two members of a secret society constantly making references to esoteric data not available to outsiders.” This strikes me as an accurate and poignant description of the difference between American and English writers. The English tend to play off (and with) one another; while the Americans are, if not Waldenized solitaries, Darwinized predators constantly preying upon one another. I think it significant that when the excellent American writer Paul Bowles came to write his autobiography, he chose a prose style not unlike that of Julius Caesar’s report on how he laid waste Gaul.

“At all our meetings I felt that I was being treated with good-humored condescension. They accepted Aaron [Copland], but they did not accept me because they considered me too young and inexperienced or perhaps merely uninteresting; I never learnt the reason, if there was one, for this exclusion by common consent.” Bowles describes a British girl he met with Isherwood. She was called Jean Ross “(When Christopher wrote about her later, he called her Sally Bowles).”


In Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood sets up the by now obligatory reverse-angle shot: “(Sally Bowles’s second name was chosen for her by Christopher because he liked the sound of it and also the looks of its owner, a twenty-year-old American whom he met in Berlin in 1931. The American thought Christopher treated him with ‘good-humored condescension’; Christopher thought the American aloof….)” Apparently, there was a near-miss in Berlin.

Christopher and His Kind describes Isherwood’s life from 1929 to 1939. The narrative (based on diaries and written, generally, in the third person) takes up where Lions and Shadows ends with “twenty-four-year-old Christopher’s departure from England on March 14, 1929, to visit Berlin for the first time in his life.” The book ends a decade later when Isherwood emigrates to the United States. Of Lions and Shadows, Isherwood says that it describes his “life between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four. It is not truly autobiographical, however. The author conceals important facts about himself…and gives his characters fictitious names.” But “The book I am now going to write will be as frank and factual as I can make it, especially as far as I myself am concerned.” He means to be sexually candid; and he is. He is also that rarest of creatures, the objective narcissist; he sees himself altogether plain and does not hesitate to record for us the lines that the face in the mirror has accumulated, the odd shadow that flaws character.

I have just read the two memoirs in sequence and it is odd how little Isherwood has changed in a half century. The style is much the same throughout. The shift from first to third person does not much alter the way he has of looking at things and it is, of course, the precise way in which Isherwood perceives the concrete world that makes all the difference. He is particularly good at noting a physical appearance that suggests, through his selection of nouns, verbs, a psychic description. This is from Lions and Shadows:

[Chalmers] had grown a small moustache and looked exactly my idea of a young Montmartre poet, more French than the French. Now he caught sight of us, and greeted me with a slight wave of the hand, so very typical of him, tentative, diffident, semi-ironical, like a parody of itself. Chalmers expressed himself habitually in fragments of gestures, abortive movements, half-spoken sentences….

Then the same sharp eye is turned upon the narrator:

Descending the staircase to the dining-room, I was Christopher Isherwood no longer, but a satanically proud, icy, impenetrable demon; an all-knowing, all-pardoning savior of mankind; a martyr-evangelist of the tea-table, from which the most atrocious drawing-room tortures could wring no more than a polite proffer of the buttered scones.

This particular auteur du cinéma seldom shoots a scene without placing somewhere on the set a mirror that will record the auteur in the act of filming.

At the time of the publication of Lions and Shadows in 1938, Isherwood was thirty-four years old. He had published three novels: All the Conspirators, The Memorial, Mr. Norris Changes Trains. With Auden he had written the plays The Dog Beneath the Skin and The Ascent of F6. Finally, most important of all, the finest of his creations had made a first appearance in Mr. Norris Changes Trains; with no great fuss or apparent strain, Isherwood had invented Isherwood. The Isherwood of the Berlin stories is a somewhat anodyne and enigmatic narrator. He is looking carefully at life. He does not commit himself to much of anything. Yet what might have been a limitation in a narrator the author, rather mysteriously, made a virtue of.

Spender describes Isherwood in Berlin as occasionally “depressive, silent or petulant. Sometimes he would sit in a room with Sally Bowles or Mr. Norris without saying a word, as though refusing to bring his characters to life.” But they were very much his characters. He lived “surrounded by the models for his creations, like one of those portraits of a writer by a bad painter, in which the writer is depicted meditating in his chair whilst the characters of his novels radiate round him under a glowing cloud of dirty varnish….” Isherwood had rejected not only the familiar, cozy world of Cambridge and London’s literary life but also the world of self-conscious aestheticism. He chose to live as a proletarian in Berlin where, Spender tells us, “He was comparatively poor and almost unrecognized. His novel, All the Conspirators, had been remaindered,” Spender notes yet again. Nevertheless, Spender realized that Isherwood

was more than a young rebel passing through a phase of revolt against parents, conventional morality, and orthodox religion…. He was on the side of the forces which make a work of art, even more than he was interested in art itself…. His hatred of institutions of learning and even of the reputation attached to some past work of art, was really hatred of the fact that they came between people and their direct unprejudiced approach to one another.

In Lions and Shadows Isherwood writes of school, of friendships, of wanting to be…well, Isherwood, a character not yet entirely formed. Auden appears fairly late in the book though early in Isherwood’s life: they were together at preparatory school. Younger than Isherwood, Auden wanted “to become a mining engineer…. I remember him chiefly for his naughtiness, his insolence, his smirking tantalizing air of knowing disreputable and exciting secrets.” Auden was on to sex and the others were not.

Auden and Isherwood did not meet again for seven years. “Just before Christmas, 1925, a mutual acquaintance brought him in to tea. I found him very little changed.” Auden “told me that he wrote poetry nowadays: he was deliberately a little over-casual in making this announcement. I was very much surprised, even rather disconcerted.” But then, inevitably, the Poet and the Novelist of the age formed an alliance. The Poet had further surprises for the Novelist. Auden’s “own attitude to sex, in its simplicity and utter lack of inhibition, fairly took my breath away. He was no Don Juan: he didn’t run around hunting for his pleasures. But he took what came to him with a matter-of-factness and an appetite as hearty as that which he showed when sitting down to dinner.”

Art and sex: the two themes intertwine in Isherwood’s memoirs but in the first volume we do not know what the sex was all about: the reticences of the Thirties forbade candor. Now in Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood has filled in the blanks; he is explicit about both sex and love. Not only did the Poet and the Novelist of that era lust for boys, there is some evidence that each might have echoed Marlowe’s mighty line: I have found that those who do not like tobacco and boys are fools.

“The book I am now going to write will be as frank and factual as I can make it, especially as far as I myself am concerned.” Then the writer shifts to the third person: “At school, Christopher had fallen in love with many boys and been yearningly romantic about them. At college he had at last managed to get into bed with one. This was due entirely to the initiative of his partner, who, when Christopher became scared and started to raise objections, locked the door and sat down firmly on Christopher’s lap.” For an American twenty-two years younger than Christopher, the late development of the English of that epoch is astonishing. In Washington, DC, puberty arrived at ten, eleven, twelve, and sex was riotous and inventive between consenting paeds. Yet Tennessee Williams (fourteen years my senior) reports in his Memoirs that neither homo- nor heterosexuality began for him until his late twenties. On the other hand, he did not go to a monosexual school as I did, as Isherwood and his kind did.

Isherwood tells us that “other experiences followed, all of them enjoyable but none entirely satisfying. This was because Christopher was suffering from an inhibition, then not unusual among upper-class homosexuals; he couldn’t relax sexually with a member of his own class or nation. He needed a working-class foreigner.” Germany was the answer. “To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys.” Auden promptly introduced him to the Cosy Corner, a hangout for proletarian youths, and Christopher took up with a blond named Bubi, “the first presentable candidate who appeared to claim the leading role in Christopher’s love myth.”

John Lehmann’s recently published “novel” In the Purely Pagan Sense overlaps with Isherwood’s memoirs not only in time and place but in a similar sexual preoccupation. “I was obsessed,” writes Lehmann’s narrator, “by the desire to make love with boys of an entirely different class and background….” This desire for differentness is not unusual: misalliance has almost always been the name of the game hetero or homo or bi. But I suspect that the upper-middle-class man’s desire for youths of the lower class derives, mainly, from fear of his own class. Between strongly willed males of the Isherwood-Auden sort, a sexual commitment could lead to a psychic defeat for one of the partners.

The recently published memoirs of Isherwood’s contemporary Peter Quennell (The Marble Foot) describe how an upper-class heterosexual English writer was constantly betrayed by women of his own class. Apparently, Quennell is much too tender, too romantic, too…well, feminine to avoid victimization by the ladies. A beautiful irony never to be understood by United Statesmen given to the joys of the sexual majority is that a homosexualist like Isherwood cannot with any ease enjoy a satisfactory sexual relationship with a woman because he himself is so entirely masculine that the woman presents no challenge, no masculine hardness, no exciting agon. It is the heterosexual Don Juan (intellectual division) who is the fragile, easily wounded figure, given to tears. Isherwood is a good deal less “feminine” (in the pre-women’s lib sense of the word) than Peter Quennell, say, or Cyril Connolly or our own paralyzingly butch Ernest Hemingway.

Isherwood describes his experiments with heterosexuality: “She was five or six years older than [Christopher], easygoing, stylish, humorous…. He was surprised and amused to find how easily he could relate his usual holds and movements to this unusual partner. He felt curiosity and the fun of playing a new game. He also felt a lust which was largely narcissistic….” Then: “He asked himself: Do I now want to go to bed with more women and girls? Of course not, as long as I can have boys. Why do I prefer boys? Because of their shape and their voices and their smell and the way they move. And boys can be romantic. I can put them into my myth and fall in love with them. Girls can be absolutely beautiful but never romantic. In fact, their utter lack of romance is what I find most likeable about them.” There is a clear-eyed normality (if not great accuracy) about all this.

Then Isherwood moves from the personal to the general and notes the lunatic pressure that society exerts on everyone to be heterosexual, to deny at all costs a contrary nature. Since heterosexual relations proved to be easy for Isherwood, he could have joined the majority. But he was stopped by Isherwood the rebel, the Protestant saint who declared with the fury of a Martin Luther: “even if my nature were like theirs, I should still have to fight them, in one way or another. If boys didn’t exist, I should have to invent them.” Isherwood’s war on what he has called, so aptly, “the heterosexual dictatorship” has been unremitting and admirable, and the relative small freedoms that the homosexualist now “enjoys” in the United States and England are, in good part, a result of his courageous example—and fierce sermons.

In Berlin Isherwood settled down with a working-class boy named Heinz and most of Christopher and His Kind has to do with their life together during the time when Hitler came to power and the free and easy Berlin that had attracted Isherwood turned ugly. With Heinz (whose papers were not in order), Isherwood moved restlessly about Europe: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, the Canary Islands, Brussels. In the end Heinz was trapped in Germany, and forced to serve in the Second World War. Miraculously, he survived. After the war, Isherwood met Heinz and his wife—as pleasant an end as one can imagine to any idyll of our neo-Wagnerian age.

Meanwhile, Isherwood the writer was developing. It is during this period that the Berlin stories were written; also, Lions and Shadows. Also, the collaboration with Auden on the last of the verse plays. Finally, there is the inevitable fall into the movies…something that was bound to happen. In Lions and Shadows Isherwood describes how “I had always been fascinated by films…. I was a born film fan…. The reason for this had, I think, very little to do with ‘Art’ at all; I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people—their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks…. The cinema puts people under a microscope: you can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects.”

Isherwood was invited to write a screenplay for the director “Berthold Viertel [who] appears as Friedrich Bergmann in the novelette called Prater Violet, which was published twelve years later.” Isherwood and the colorful Viertel hit it off and together worked on a film called Little Friend. From that time on the best prose writer in English has supported himself by writing movies. In fact, the first Isherwood work that I encountered was not a novel but a film that he wrote called Rage in Heaven: at sixteen I thought it splendid. “The moon!” intoned the nutty Robert Montgomery. “It’s staring at me, like a great Eye.” Ingrid Bergman shuddered. So did I.

It is hard now for the young who are interested in literature (a tiny minority compared to the young who are interested in that flattest and easiest and laziest of art forms: the movies) to realize that Isherwood was once considered “a hope of English fiction” by Cyril Connolly, and a master by those of us who grew up in the Second World War. I think the relative neglect of Isherwood’s work is, partly, the result of his expatriation. With Auden, he emigrated to the United States just before the war began, and there was a good deal of bitter feeling at the time (they were clumsily parodied by the unspeakable Evelyn Waugh in Put Out More Flags). Ultimately, Auden’s reputation was hardly affected. But then poets are licensed to be mad, bad, and dangerous to read, while prose writers are expected to be, if not responsible, predictable.

In America Isherwood was drawn first to the Quakers; then to Vedanta. Lately, he has become a militant spokesman of Gay Liberation. If his defense of Christopher’s kind is sometimes shrill…well, there is a good deal to be shrill about in a society so deeply and so mindlessly homophobic. In any case, none of Isherwood’s moral preoccupations is apt to endear him to a literary establishment that is, variously, academic, Jewish/Christian, middle-class, and heterosexual. Yet he has written some of his best books in the United States, including the memoir at hand and the novels A Single Man and A Meeting by the River. Best of all, he still views the world aslant despite long residence in Santa Monica, a somber place where even fag households resemble those hetero couples photographed in Better Homes and Gardens, serving up intricate brunches ‘neath the hazel Pacific sky.

What strikes me as most remarkable in Isherwood’s career has not been so much the unremitting will to be his own man as the constant clarity of a prose style that shows no sign of slackness even though the author is, astonishingly, in his seventies. There is a good deal to be said about the way that Isherwood writes, particularly at a time when prose is worse than ever in the United States, and showing signs of etiolation in England. There is no excess in an Isherwood sentence. The verbs are strong. Nouns precise. Adjectives few. The third person startles and seduces, while the first person is a good guide and never coy.

Is the Isherwood manner perhaps too easy? Cyril Connolly feared that it might be when he wrote in Enemies of Promise (1938): “[Isherwood] is persuasive because he is so insinuatingly bland and anonymous, nothing rouses him, nothing shocks him. While secretly despising us he could not at the same time be more tolerant…. Now for this a price has to be paid; Herr Issyvoo” (Connolly is contemplating Isherwood’s Berlin stories) “is not a dumb ox, for he is not condemned to the solidarity with his characters and with their background to which Hemingway is bound by his conception of art, but he is much less subtle, intelligent and articulate than he might be.” Isherwood answered Connolly: “In conversation, Isherwood…expressed his belief in construction as the way out of the difficulty. The writer must conform to the language which is understood by the greatest number of people, to the vernacular, but his talent as a novelist will appear in the exactness of his observation, the justice of his situations and in the construction of his book.”

Isherwood has maintained this aesthetic throughout a long career. When he turned his back on what Connolly termed Mandarin writing, he showed considerable courage. But the later Isherwood is even better than the early cameraman because he is no longer the anonymous, neutral narrator. He can be shocked; he can be angry.

In Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood wonders what attitude to take toward the coming war with Germany. “Suppose, Christopher now said to himself, I have a Nazi Army at my mercy. I can blow it up by pressing a button. The men in the army are notorious for torturing and murdering civilians—all except one of them, Heinz. Will I press the button? No—wait: Suppose I know that Heinz himself, out of cowardice or moral infection, has become as bad as they are and takes part in all their crimes? Will I press that button, even so? Christopher’s answer, given without the slightest hesitation, was: Of course not.” That is the voice of humanism in a bad time, and one can only hope that thanks to Christopher’s life and work, his true kind will increase even as they (we) refuse, so wisely, to multiply.

This Issue

December 9, 1976